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With her pooch, a teenager learned that senior citizens have a lot to offer

With her pooch, a teenager learned that senior citizens have a lot to offer

December 30, 2008|By TAYLOR ECKEL / Pulse Correspondent

Imagine spending every day in the same house, in the same chair. No video games. No cell phone. No computer. You're probably thinking, "Yeah, right!" Now fast forward 70 years. Where do you picture yourself? In America, more than 1.8 million people reside in nursing homes, according to a recent story by USA Today. Only visitors and occasional activities break up the predictability of daily life.

Volunteers interact with nursing home residents to help brighten their day. I began visiting Reeders Memorial Home in Boonsboro last spring, giving manicures to any lady who wanted one. I discovered that many of them missed having pets around, so I talked to the activities director about bringing my border collie, Terra, for a visit. I've been training Terra for the three years since my family adopted her, and she loves to play and do tricks. Initially, she didn't like to be petted by anyone, but now she is comfortable - even with strangers.

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On visits, Terra and I walk through the hallways of Reeders for an hour and a half. Many people sit in their doorways or in common rooms, so we stop often. The residents enjoy throwing a toy for Terra, and are delighted when she retrieves it. Sometimes I have to hand the toy back to them, but frequently Terra gently places the toy on their lap. One man enjoyed teasing Terra, dangling the toy in front of her face, laughing at her fascination with the toy. (True to her herding dog instinct, Terra stares at anything that captures her interest.)

Some residents only want to play, but others also want to pet Terra. Once, we met a wheelchair-bound lady in a hallway. Clearly a dog-lover, she told me stories of her German shepherds. When it was time for us to move on, she wanted to hug Terra, so I lifted Terra's front paws onto the wheelchair arm. Walking away, I wondered how long it had been since she hugged an animal.

Almost all of the residents have reacted positively to our presence. Roxanne's response is the most memorable. I had painted her nails once, and remembered that she had sat hunched over with her head bowed the whole time, completely expressionless and non-communicative. Upon seeing Terra, Roxanne straightened up, and began talking animatedly (although we had a tough time understanding her.) She threw the toy over and over for Terra, grinning from ear to ear. Nurses passing by stopped to express their surprise. When it was time to say good bye, Roxanne pinned Terra's head against the edge of her wheelchair. I stiffened, because like most border collies, Terra is somewhat shy about strangers touching her in close quarters. With great effort Roxanne stroked Terra's head with inflexible fingers, accidently jabbing her in the eye with a long fingernail. Amazingly, Terra didn't even flinch.

Volunteering with Terra has been a great experience for me, and I have learned several life lessons. Shortly after my first visit, I was injured playing soccer. Being at the nursing home forced me to snap out of my pity-party and made me truly grateful for the mobility I still had.

The clunky knee brace I had to wear served as a great conversation starter. I was inspired after talking to 95-year-old Marjorie, who had undergone double knee and double-hip replacements and still walked unassisted and enjoyed dancing. My minor arthroscopy paled in comparison to her experiences and encouraged me in my recovery.

Interacting with the nursing home residents has stretched me to step outside of myself and given me a greater appreciation for my daily activities - even school. I have been blessed to bring a little joy to others.

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